Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tijuana's Caesar's Restaurant: Home of the Caesar Salad

October 22, 2008
Tijuana Journal
Wary Tourists Toss Aside a Chance to Taste History

TIJUANA, Mexico — Eating salad in Mexico is discouraged by most guide books, citing the potential threat to the digestive tract.

It is true that the water can be problematic south of the border, if it is consumed directly from the tap or used to wash one’s salad fixings. At the same time, fine dining abounds throughout Mexico, white tablecloth affairs with celebrity chefs, mouthwatering menus and fancy water that comes from elegantly shaped bottles.

Although not in that lofty league, there is one eatery with a particularly distinguished history that is relevant to the question of whether one should consume salads in Mexico. Called Caesar’s Restaurant, it sits in the seediest of spots, along Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución, and specializes in salad — Caesar salad, to be exact, which it says was invented in its kitchen in 1924.

Jorge Chávez is the manager of Caesar’s and the keeper of the historical flame. After a waiter whipped up a salad tableside the other day in an elaborate ceremony, Mr. Chávez plunked down to defend his lettuce.

A table full of customers had recently left the premises after taking advantage of Caesar’s two-for-one beer special but not daring to eat the food. One of them had scoffed when a waiter offered her a salad. She made a crack about that being a sure-fire vacation spoiler.

“She has bad information,” Mr. Chávez said when the group was gone. “We’re not using dirty water on our salad. I’d put our salad up against anyone, anywhere.”

He then veered into a bit of history. One day back in 1924, Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who ran a restaurant in what was then an upscale tourist zone in Tijuana, found himself low on provisions but with some hungry friends to feed. As the story goes, he threw what he had — some lettuce, garlic and pieces of bread, among other ingredients — into a bowl and came up with a creation that has lived on ever since.

There are some disagreements over the details of the story. Was it a cook who really came up with it? Did Caesar’s brother, Alex, first throw anchovies into the mix? But there appears to be some support that the Caesar salad was born in Tijuana, or at the very least earned its worldwide reputation here.

None other than Julia Child wrote in one of her cookbooks, “One of my early remembrances of restaurant life was going to Tijuana in 1925 or 1926 with my parents, who were wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar’s Restaurant.”

She recalled Mr. Cardini himself rolling a big cart to her family’s table and throwing some raw eggs into the mix.

Raw egg yolks are still part of the recipe here. Also tossed into the large wooden bowl, which is big enough to bathe a newborn child, are olive oil, ground anchovies, garlic, a dash of mustard and Worcestershire sauce, Parmesan cheese, pepper and white wine mixed with vinegar.

Large romaine lettuce leaves are dunked in the mixture and then laid out on a plate.

Mr. Chávez took pains to point out that each leaf is carefully cut into a diamond shape and then purified with a chemical additive to kill any microbes. The resulting salad, he contends, is not only safe to eat and delicious to eat but, in his view, quintessentially Mexican.

“Some of the ingredients are foreign but the hands that make it are Mexican,” he said. Another key addition are Mexican limes, which are squeezed into the salad dressing to neutralize the strong flavors of the anchovies, garlic and egg yolks. “No flavor dominates,” he said.

The biggest problem these days is that not enough people are digging in. Tourism is in the doldrums in Tijuana, a result of a variety of factors, including too much crime, police harassment and the economic woes up north.

The restaurant has struggled through hard times before. It closed for more than five years in the 1990s, and after it reopened, it installed a topless dance club in the back, which operates in the evening and supplements the paltry restaurant income.

There were only six people eating salads on a recent afternoon. Four of them were local university students who were on a research trip and were eating on the house. The other two were reporting on and photographing the salads for this article.

“You hear so much that’s bad about Tijuana,” Mr. Chávez said. “I want people to know that we have something to be proud of.”

And how is the salad? Well, the guy taking pictures let out a long “mmmmm” as he sampled the sauce. The guy with the pen thought the croutons, which soak up the zesty dressing, were among the best he had sampled anywhere.

Both of them lingered at the table, their stomachs feeling fine.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Barack Obama's White Grandparents

From his blog at the Atlantic. It's a short post, read the whole thing.

The finish:

... I was looking at this picture of Obama's grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I'd bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn't give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were "of their times." Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what normal, right people should always do when faced with a child--commit an act love. Here's to doing the right thing.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Drug Killings Haunt Mexican Schoolchildren

One can only imagine the longterm effects.

[see original post for images and audio supplement]

October 20, 2008
Drug Killings Haunt Mexican Schoolchildren

TIJUANA, Mexico — The little boy, his school uniform neatly pressed and his friends gathered around, held up 10 little fingers, each one representing a dead body he said he saw outside his school one recent morning. He was not finished, though. He put down the 10 fingers and then put up 2 more. Twelve bodies in all.

“They chopped out the tongues,” the boy said, seemingly fascinated by what he saw at the mass-killing scene outside Valentín Gómez Farías Primary School three weeks ago.

“I saw the blood,” offered a classmate, enthusiastically.

“They were tied,” piped in another.

Mexico’s explosion of drug-related violence has caught the attention of the country’s children. Experts say the atrocities that young people are hearing about, and all too frequently witnessing, are hardening them, traumatizing them, filling their heads with images that are hard to shake.

“Unfortunately, with this wave of drug violence, there’s been collateral damage among children,” said Jorge Álvarez Martínez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in post-traumatic stress. Such exposure to violence can hinder learning, interrupt sleep and linger for years, he said.

Nowhere is the trauma greater than along the border with the United States, where drug cartels are battling one another for a growing domestic market and the lucrative transit routes north. In Tijuana alone, a wave of gangland killings has left at least 99 people dead since Sept. 26, a death toll that rivals, if not exceeds, that in Baghdad, a war-torn city that is four times as large, over the same period.

Across Mexico, the carnage is impossible to hide, with severed heads and decapitated bodies turning up, sometimes nearly a dozen at a time. There have been more than 3,700 killings related to drugs and organized crime this year, up from about 2,700 last year, the Mexican attorney general’s office said early last week, with Chihuahua the most violent state and the killings continuing in the days since.

Exchanging gruesome stories is nothing new for schoolchildren, who have a way of overstating their brushes with danger. But the 12 tortured, tongueless bodies that were the talk of the playground recently were no exaggeration. In the early hours of Sept. 29, the bodies of 11 men and one woman, bound and partly dressed, were found in an abandoned lot opposite the school.

The headmaster, Miguel Ángel González Tovar, canceled classes soon after the bodies were discovered, but that did not stop some students from getting a glimpse of them and many others from hearing about them.

“There’s no doubt these images affect the children,” said Mr. González, who recently met with government psychologists to plan counseling sessions with the students. “Some of them are very quiet now. Some are asking us, ‘Why did they die?’ ”

And the bodies dumped outside the school are only one of several macabre displays, forcing teachers to compete with the killers for the attention of Mexico’s youth.

Indeed, it is hard to find a student here who does not know some of the gruesome details of recent killings, like the several vats of acid that were found outside a seafood restaurant, containing what the authorities said they believed were human remains. Or the two bodies wrapped in what resembled cellophane that were found near a road sign that said, “Thank you for visiting Tijuana.”

Bodies have been hung from bridges, sliced into pieces, decapitated, burned.

Mr. González’s biggest fear is that the awful scenes playing out across much of Mexico are so common that they will eventually lose their shock value among the young, making killing an expected, even acceptable, part of life.

“They may grow up with this sort of thing being normal,” he said. “They can say, ‘I saw 12! How many did you see?’ You could never have imagined this years ago.”

Youngsters today already know the names of the drug traffickers, not just from the nightly news but also from popular songs that extol them as heroes and from the Internet, where the grisly homicide scenes can often be watched on YouTube.

In Tijuana, the leader of the Arellano Félix drug cartel is Fernando Sánchez Arellano, a nephew of the group’s founders who goes by the nickname the Engineer. The authorities say they believe the outburst of killings here is the work of rival traffickers trying to seize control of his turf.

That explains the note found propped up on the dozen bodies outside the school: “This is what happens to anyone associated with the loudmouth Engineer.”

Mexico’s government has sent soldiers to trouble spots throughout the country to reinforce embattled local law enforcement agencies and in some cases root out corruption in their midst. But the drug traffickers have proved better armed in many cases and hard to contain. They are not just violent but also sadistic in their killing methods, and they seem intent on showing off their latest killings, to young and old alike.

“They are sending some kind of perverse message,” Mr. González speculated on why the 12 bodies were dumped near the front gate of his school. “They want attention, and they know leaving bodies in front of a school has impact. Now we’re worried that at any school at any time a body could turn up.”

This month, just before a high school was letting out, the police were on the scene of another killing, this time a barrel containing the body of a man whose arms and legs had been severed. The body, which had been left near the first-base line of a popular amateur baseball league field not far from the school, was whisked away by the authorities to the overflowing morgue before any students came upon it.

But it is not always possible to keep the drug violence hidden from young people.

In January, for instance, the police and soldiers engaged in a three-hour gun battle with narcotics traffickers from the Arellano Félix cartel in a residential neighborhood of Tijuana, requiring several schools to evacuate their students. Heavily armed police officers carried crying children to safety as other law enforcement officers crept along the sidewalk with guns drawn.

By the time the shooting quieted, six presumed traffickers had been killed.

“It was awful,” said Gloria I. Rico, director of the Garden of Happy Children, a preschool that was forced to evacuate. “Even when it was over and we tried to return to normal, any little sound would make the children jump.”

When a prison riot broke out here in September, and there was another eruption of gunfire, teachers at the preschool tried to distract the youngsters. “We told them they were fireworks,” Ms. Rico said, since independence celebrations had just taken place. “We said, ‘Don’t worry,’ but they were still anxious.”

On Wednesday afternoon, another shootout forced yet another Tijuana school to evacuate. This time it was Secondary School 25 that called off classes midway through the day and quickly emptied its classrooms in a panic. “It’s terrible what’s happening in Tijuana,” said Antonio Ochoa Pastrán, the headmaster. “It’s sad that now even in school children aren’t safe.”

Many children, Ms. Rico said, now associate anyone in uniform with violence, which is not an absurd proposition, not only because they may be fighting the traffickers, but also because many law enforcement officers around the country are on the traffickers’ payroll. “The children see the police and they are scared,” Ms. Rico said. “They fear that there is going to be more shooting.”

And there probably will be, which prompts parents to watch their children more closely than ever.

“You don’t know if he goes out if he’s going to come back,” said Patricia Beltrán, who looked on as her 8-year-old son, Marco Antonio, played near the spot where a killing had taken place, the blood still visible in the dirt.

Such fear is not misplaced, because innocent youngsters have been caught in the cross-fire. In addition, most of the victims are under 30 because the cartels use young gunmen to protect their merchandise and enforce discipline, the authorities say.

And given the extensive and often graphic media coverage of the killings, parents say it is impossible to shield their children psychologically.

“My kids are dreaming about this,” said Laura Leticia Quezada, who has three children at the primary school near where the bodies were dumped. “They watch it on the news, and they know every last detail.”

Jorge Fregoso, a television reporter, spends his days hustling from one homicide scene to another and then rushing back to the studio to put it all on the air. The father of two children, he says he understands the concern of many parents and tries to avoid extremely graphic images.

But at the same time, he said, reporting the awful events presses the authorities to take action and to make the streets safer.

“It’s hard for children not to know what’s going on,” he said. “You can turn off the TV all the time and hide the radio and newspaper. They’re still going to hear the bullets. And they might see a shooting themselves.”

Call Centers Are Fodder For India's Pop Culture

Call Centers Are Fodder For India's Pop Culture
Bollywood Movie Is Latest Manifestation

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 20, 2008; A10


In a training session at a suburban call center, groups of fresh-faced Indian recruits jettison their Indian names and thick accents and practice speaking English just like the Americans do. They have hesitant conversations with imaginary American customers who complain angrily about their broken appliance or computer glitch.

The instructor writes "35 = 10" on the board, as though he is gifting the recruits with a magic mantra.

"A 35-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's," he explains, and urges the agents to be patient with the callers.

That is a scene from "Hello," the first Bollywood movie about the distorted and dual lives of India's 2 million call-center workers. When it debuted this month, many in the audience cheered and laughed at such scenes, which pandered to the reigning stereotypes about those on both ends of the transcontinental, toll-free helpline -- the dumb American customer and the smart, but fake, Indian call-center agent.

As India's $64 billion outsourcing industry grows, the curious world of call centers has become the stuff of Indian pop culture. Their all-night working hours, made-up names, adopted accents and geeky global troubleshooting are becoming rich fodder for novels, movies, TV commercials, text jokes and stand-up comedy.

"It was bound to happen. The glitz of globalization provides its own cultural cliches. The call center is the most widely shared temptation among the chroniclers of new India," said S. Prasannarajan, editor-at-large of the popular English-language magazine India Today. "For the metaphor hunters of Indian popular culture and fiction, the call center has replaced the old snake charmer."

According to the cliche, call-center workers sleep all day and work at night. They are more attuned to American holidays, weather and baseball team scores than to events around them in India. Their graveyard-shift hours have given birth to a range of businesses that stay open all night. There are special 7 a.m. movie screenings and bars that serve drinks to returning workers into the wee hours.

"Hello" is based on a best-selling Indian novel called "One Night @ the Call Center," which tells the tale of six call-center agents whose fragile lives come undone one evening. After four songs and lots of tearful drama, they get that all-important call from God, who fixes everything.

"It is a uniquely Indian story with global relevance. It is about new India, its youth and its aspirations, all trapped in the phenomenon called the call center," said Atul Agnihotri, the director.

The novel's author, Chetan Bhagat, said he hung out with his "call-center cousins," stole training manuals and snooped around offices at night for colorful details with which to fill his book.

"It is not just a different kind of job. It is a different social life. It is a subculture," said Bhagat, a banker. "When I wrote the novel in 2005, the outsourcing industry was just a statistic in India's growth story. My novel humanized them for the first time."

He said three-fourths of his fan mail comes from readers in India's smaller towns.

"A call-center job is the easiest ticket for a college student to come to the big city and live the big life," he said.

The book's protagonist is named Shyam Mehra, although he morphs into Sam Marcy every night at the call center. He is the proverbial black sheep of his family because he is not a doctor or engineer like his cousins.

Bhagat said his characters love American food, movies and music but resent the irate, abusive and, at times, racist callers they have to handle. Many of the characters think Americans are dumb and wonder how the United States became a global superpower. But once a year, they still have to pick up the phone with a cheerful but culturally alien "Happy Thanksgiving."

In another novel, "Once Upon a Timezone," Neel Pandey is an upper-caste, middle-class Indian whose U.S. visa application is rejected. He settles for "a good second-best" -- a job at a call center. By night, he becomes Neil Patterson and fixes America's computer snags. The job lets him pretend to be an American. Romance enters the picture when he falls in love with an American customer on the phone and hides his Indian identity to keep the flirtation going.

"The world of the call center is seen as this dark hole of amorous, other-world, rule-breaking inhabitants who are at play when the world sleeps and have made a clean break with the conservative, tradition-bound world they have come from," said Neelesh Misra, the author.

Misra is in talks with Bollywood filmmakers to turn his book into a song-and-dance romantic comedy.

Real-life call-center workers say they don't always appreciate the stereotypes but get a kick out of the attention.

"People don't fully understand us, our work or our lives, our unique slang and vocabulary," said Owais Khalil Khan, 26, who has worked in a call center for five years. "But I am glad that they finally think that ours is a story worth telling. "

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Original Culture Warrior (Celebrating Leonard Berstein)

The Original Culture Warrior

Since when was 'cosmopolitan' a dirty word? Leonard Bernstein proved that the low and high arts could make beautiful music together.
Jeremy McCarter
From the magazine issue dated Oct 27, 2008

It is one of those stories that never get old. Once upon a time, a matinee crowd bustled into Carnegie Hall to hear a program led by the visiting German-born conductor Bruno Walter. After taking their seats, the concertgoers learned that the maestro had fallen ill and would not appear. Even worse, it turned out that the only person available to lead the mighty New York Philharmonic on a half day's notice was a skinny assistant conductor who hadn't had time to rehearse the music (which boded ill), was born in America (unlikely in those days) and was just 25 years old (preposterous at any time). Under these fraught circumstances, the kid delivered a performance kinetic enough to be extraordinary. As in four-curtain-calls extraordinary. As in front-page-of-the-next-day's-New-York-Times extraordinary. As in (keep in mind the live radio feed beaming it from coast to coast) Bobby-Thomson-"the-Giants-win-the-pennant" extraordinary.

Leonard Bernstein captured the public imagination that day in 1943 and, in five succeeding decades as conductor, composer, teacher, activist and all-around personality, never let it go. This fall, what feels like half the cultural institutions in New York City have banded together to honor his far-flung achievements. Led by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds" marks the 90th anniversary of his birth and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the Philharmonic. There are symphonic concerts (some featuring student choirs drawn from public schools), jazz renditions of his work (by Bill Charlap), an in-depth film retrospective at Lincoln Center and even "Our Lenny," a two-week radio celebration that aired earlier this month and now streams on wnyc.org. This octopus-armed reach is only fitting for the man who was captured in a 1957 Time cover story staggering to bed at 3 a.m. and gazing in horror at the next day's schedule. "Who do I think I am," he cried, "everybody?"

Though it's a little awkward to be celebrating a 90th birthday instead of a proper centennial, the timing turns out to be propitious, too. Spend a little time chasing Bernstein's legacy around town, and you pick up overtones of a rare sensibility. Today, when high and low culture sneer at each other across a gulf of incomprehension and politically useful ill will, Bernstein seems a glorious freak: the avatar of a democratic cultural dream that elitism and populism can commune, not to cancel each other out but to their mutual benefit. This is not what Tocqueville had in mind when he predicted that the sprawling patchwork nature of our society doomed us to mediocre, middle-ground art. But not even the prophetic Tocqueville could see Lenny Bernstein coming.

"I love two things: music and people," says Bernstein in "The Gift of Music," one of the biographical films screening at Lincoln Center this fall. "I don't know which I like better." There were times when he had to choose, to fight to give himself time to compose. But for the most part, Bernstein's life is defined by the fruitful interplay between the two. Growing up in Lawrence, Mass., he couldn't persuade his father to pay for piano lessons, forcing the teenage Lenny to teach students even younger and greener than he was to earn the money to keep learning. After he graduated from Harvard, "conductor" became the perfect description of what he did, because the energy of a composition flowed through him like current down a wire: he swayed, he jabbed his baton, he strutted like Jagger.

In the 1950s, he later recalled, his "old quasi-rabbinical instinct for teaching and explaining and verbalizing suddenly found a paradise in television." With his youthful energy, good looks and lion's charisma, Bernstein exploited the new medium in ways that still captivate. Whether demystifying Bach for a broad public or defending jazz to those who thought the music "low class," he refused to dumb down. "Music is hard," he acknowledged. Honoring its complexity while reaching out to a wide audience—both to adult viewers and via his Young People's Concerts—required a careful balance, one he knew was impossible to achieve "without the conviction that the public is not a great beast but an intelligent organism, more often than not longing for insight and knowledge."

Though this outlook seemed novel, it was, in fact, deeply retro—and distinctly American. When the country's identity took shape in the 19th century, our culture was a rollicking, boundary-busting free-for-all. Lawrence W. Levine's history "Highbrow/Lowbrow" testifies to the central place that Shakespeare and opera occupied in the national consciousness, appealing equally—and simultaneously—to all classes and socioeconomic groups. "Richard III" might share a bill with magicians or minstrels, or be lampooned as "Bad Dicky"; soldiers marched off to the Civil War to the "Traviata Quickstep." There are plenty of elements of this cultural scene we should be glad to have outgrown. (In 1897, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was proud to note that "there is no more spitting tobacco juice on the gallery floors.") But we should—and Bernstein did—regret the loss of what Levine calls "a shared public culture," one less hierarchically organized and split into fewer little categories than the scene we know today.

It's no coincidence—though it was Bernstein's immense good fortune—that his zenith came at a moment when some powerful people shared this desire. The Kennedys made their White House, in the words of Richard Hofstadter, "a center of receptivity to culture." Bernstein performed at the Inaugural Gala, and, like Pablo Casals, E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost and other high-art luminaries, found a warm welcome throughout the Camelot years. Swept up in the notion that Americans might be able to meet not at the lowest common denominator but at the cultural peak, Bernstein was devastated by JFK's death, which was also the death of Camelot. He dedicated his Third Symphony, "Kaddish," to the late president.

Late compositions like that one and "Mass," an extravaganza about Roman Catholic ritual, drew nothing like the praise of his earlier "West Side Story" or "On the Town." Still, Bernstein continued to show that the pursuit of excellence could coexist with American democracy. (It is one of the qualities that made him such an effective cultural emissary during the cold war.) But that position became decidedly lonelier after 1968, when Richard Nixon replaced the old economic resentments of presidential campaigns with obnoxious new cultural ones pitting "the silent majority" against assorted decadent elites. By the time Bernstein died in 1990, the very things he hoped might unite us had become a tool for driving us apart.

Anybody reading the papers can see how vicious the culture wars have grown. Just about any personal quality with a whiff of distinction—a hobby, a vegetable preference—can get you branded an elitist and a threat to our values. Remember how, in a desperate bid for self-preservation, John Kerry pretended four years ago he didn't speak French? Or consider how, at this year's Republican convention, Barack Obama was mocked by the multimillionaire former mayor of New York City and prominent opera buff Rudy Giuliani for being "cosmopolitan." Maybe Tocqueville was right about us.

Nobody thinks that if only Sean Hannity listeners had a subtler appreciation of Mahler, they'd cozy right up to Nancy Pelosi fans, or that a wave of "Bad Dicky" revivals might heal the wounds of the body politic. But the Bernstein festival reminds us that one of our civilization's triumphs has been finding ways to reconcile "elite" and "popular," to stop treating the words like opposing epithets. At a time when so many other echoes of Camelot are in the air, we may yet see the return of its cultural spirit, one that few Americans have embodied as fully as Lenny Bernstein.

Because even beyond the festival, that spirit can be detected around town, nowhere more clearly than in the temple of the elites, the Metropolitan Opera. Since taking over as general manager two years ago, Peter Gelb has worked to correct what he calls the defeatism of the classical-music establishment of decades past. "Rather than admit that it was not being successful reaching a broader public, there was a movement—which Bernstein was totally opposed to—of disdaining the public," he says. Gelb has thrown open his doors to millions of new operagoers. He simulcasts opening night in Times Square and beams live HD broadcasts of the Met's operas to movie theaters. He does this not just because it's good for the bottom line but because, in his strong form of democratic elitism, it's good for the art. "I don't think you can be truly, completely, theatrically successful unless you have the public filling the theater," he says.

Still, the old question does bear asking: what's in it for the folks? If American society needs more common ground, why shouldn't Bernstein or any of his successors be content with boosting ratings to the Super Bowl? I put the question to the man who stands nearest the legacy of Leonard Bernstein. Michael Tilson Thomas took over the Young People's Concerts in the 1970s, and now, as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, uses TV and the Internet with a Lenny-like aplomb. Bernstein insisted on high-low harmony because "he was a humanist," Thomas says. "As a result of knowing these great pieces of music or great poems or paintings, or whatever the art might be, you become bigger and more understanding. And that's the highest purpose of what the arts are trying to do."

According to Thomas, it's not just the lectures and books and TV gigs that bear this message: Bernstein's real spirit lies in his music. Nowhere does it ring clearer than in what the composer John Adams describes (in the new essay collection "Leonard Bernstein: American Original") as his masterpiece: "West Side Story." Like just about everything intended for the Broadway stage, the show (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, libretto by Arthur Laurents and dances by Jerome Robbins) can be classed as a middlebrow work. But when you're listening to it—which you'll have the chance to do on Oct. 29, when PBS airs a performance of Thomas conducting the show's "Symphonic Dances" suite at Carnegie Hall's opening night—the high-low distinctions come to seem as remote as those 19th-century free-for-alls.

In Bernstein's score, soaring symphonic moments downshift suddenly to knockabout numbers like "Gee, Officer Krupke." Crucial, too, are the weird strands tangled up in its DNA: Bernstein acknowledged that he lifted the opening phrase of "Mambo" from some unknown band he once heard in Puerto Rico, and other moments bear the influence of his great friend Aaron Copland. Because its kaleidoscopic qualities put the show in a realm all its own, everybody, no matter what his background, has to travel some cultural distance to get there. Everybody, in its presence, feels a little bit a stranger and a little bit at home. Bernstein's music creates its own crossroads, which is another way of saying it's about as American as a work of art gets.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/164499

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How Much Did Radiohead Make on "In Rainbows"?

From LAT music blog

"Now details are surfacing as to just how much lucre the band pulled in by pulling out of traditional release strategies late last year (well, for a few months, anyway). At a conference in Iceland today (how unfortunate!), Radiohead's publishing company, Warner Chappell, was to report that among digital downloads, physical CDs and boutique box sets, the band "sold" 3 million copies of "In Rainbows." Additionally, before "In Rainbows" was given a physical CD release on Jan. 1, the publisher was to report that the band earned more income from downloads of "In Rainbows" than it did during its entire run of 2003's traditionally released "Hail to the Thief."

It's the first time that hard numbers have surfaced regarding the take of "In Rainbows" in all its formats, although no details were provided as to the average price fans paid under the pay-what-you-want model. ... Music Ally has a long and thorough report on how, exactly, the unique licensing arrangements made these sales more profitable, pound-for-pound, than the traditional model, but among the fun facts are:

1. Radiohead sold 100,000 disc boxes of "In Rainbows," which at around $80 apiece represents a haul of, oh, $8 million. ...

2. Even after the pay-what-you-want deluge of downloading, the physical CD still sold 1.75 million copies worldwide, according to the publisher, which puts them alongside Lil' Wayne in proving that making music free digitally doesn't necessarily impede sales.

3. Despite the album being available to download for free on Radiohead's website, 30,000 goobers in America paid full price to get "In Rainbows" from iTunes in its first week of release.

Neal Hefti, 85, Jazz and Hollywood Composer, Dies

October 16, 2008
Neal Hefti, 85, Jazz and Hollywood Composer, Dies

Neal Hefti, whose renown as a forward-looking composer and arranger for Woody Herman and Count Basie was probably overwhelmed forever after he went to Hollywood and wrote the theme for the 1960’s television show “Batman,” and for the movie and television versions of “The Odd Couple,” died Saturday at home in Toluca Lake, Calif. He was 85.

He died suddenly from an undetermined cause, his son, Paul, said. Mr. Hefti’s death was first reported in a blog posting by a friend, the singer Nancy Sinatra, on the website www.sinatrafamily.com.

Over the years, Mr. Hefti, first known as a jazz trumpeter in the 1940s and 1950s, was much admired and much in demand as an arranger, conductor and occasional record producer; he worked with Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Mel Tormé and Tony Bennett, among others. He also led his own bands, and he was active as a player until 1960.

But his greatest sphere of influence was as an arranger and composer for other jazz artists. His early travels with jazz bands took him to New York, where he was mesmerized by the bebop playing of Dizzy Gillespie, and joined the Herman band — known as First Herd — in 1944. He was influential in moving that band from its swing roots in the direction of bebop.

He spent only two years with the Herd; when he left in 1946, he took the singer Frances Wayne, his new wife, with him. But by then he had created new arrangements for Herman’s compositions like “Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Blowin’ Up a Storm,” and composed tunes like “Apple Honey,” “Wild Root” and “The Good Earth.”

He toured with Harry James and he arranged tunes for Buddy Rich. Though he also toured and recorded with his own bands, sometimes with his wife, he never achieved real success as a bandleader. For him, the decade of the 1950’s was characterized by his association with the Basie band, for which he wrote perhaps his best known jazz tunes, including “Splanky,” “Little Pony,” “Li’l Darlin’,.” whose tempo Basie famously slowed down to a luscious and sensual crawl, and the perky “Cute.”

“If it wasn’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does,” Miles Davis said in 1955. “But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.”

Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Hefti found great success writing television and film scores. In addition to writing the theme for “The Odd Couple” (1968), which would be burned into the memories of baby boomers with the creation of the television series in 1970, he composed the scores for two other Neil Simon films, “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” (1972). His other film work included “Duel at Diablo” (1966), a brutal Western; Elaine May’s farce “A New Leaf” (1971), and the gleeful sex comedies “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964), “Boeing Boeing” (1965) and “How to Murder Your Wife” (1965).

There was a politically incorrect strain to Mr. Hefti’s work, possibly tongue-in-cheek; for the 1965 biographical film “Harlow,” he and Bobby Troup wrote the bluesy, winkingly sexist tune, Girl Talk.” (For the same movie, Mr. Hefti wrote “Lonely Girl,” the Bobby Vinton hit.)

“He felt his true work was done for the movies and television,” Paul Hefti said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. What his father especially liked about writing for the screen, he said, was that he was not restricted by a band’s instrumentation, that he could write for whatever combo, for whatever musicians he wanted.

Oddly enough, his most famous tune is among his least musically interesting, even if it was somehow brilliantly apt: the jauntily arch and repetitive theme for the television series “Batman.” Mr. Hefti said that the show was so campy it took him weeks to come up with a suitable melody. It won him his only Grammy.

Neal Paul Hefti was born in Hastings, Neb., on Oct. 29, 1922. He received a trumpet as a Christmas present when he was 10 years old; according to family lore, his mother encouraged him to play so that, if he were drafted, he would be in the band and not the infantry. By the time he was out of high school, he was arranging and playing for local bands in order to contribute to the household. He saw Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie play when they passed through nearby Omaha before he ever saw them in New York.

His wife died in 1978; a daughter died in 1997. In addition to his son, also of Toluca Lake, Mr. Hefti is survived by a brother, Joe, of Pensacola, Fla.; a sister, Pat Wacha, of Clarkson, Neb.; and three grandchildren.

“He told me he tore up more paper on ‘Batman’ than on any other work he ever did,” Paul Hefti said. “He had to find something that worked with the lowest common denominator, so it would appeal to kids, yet wouldn’t sound stupid. What he came up with was a 12-bar blues with a guitar hook and one word.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 17, 2008
An obituary on Thursday about the composer and arranger Neal Hefti misspelled the surname of the songwriter with whom he wrote “Girl Talk.” He was Bobby Troup, not Troupe.

Alton Ellis, Jamaican Singer, Dies at 70

October 17, 2008
Alton Ellis, Jamaican Singer, Dies at 70

Alton Ellis, the smooth Jamaican singer and songwriter known as the Godfather of Rock Steady, died early Saturday morning (local time) in London. He was 70 and had lived in Middlesex, England, for nearly two decades.

The cause was multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, said his business manager, Trish De Rosa.

Starting in the 1950s, Mr. Ellis helped lay the foundations of the Jamaican recording industry, singing songs that would profoundly influence global pop music.

“Alton was a bigger artist in Jamaica than Bob Marley,” said Dennis Alcapone, another Jamaican recording artist working in Britain who often performed with Mr. Ellis. “Everybody, even Bob, would love if he could sing like Alton Ellis. All of them would sit back and listen to Alton because Alton was the king.”

Alton Ellis was born and raised in Trenchtown, the same underprivileged Kingston neighborhood that was home to stars like Marley. Mr. Ellis and his younger sister Hortense got their start as schoolchildren competing on Kingston talent shows like “Vere John’s Opportunity Hour.” In 1959, as half of the duo Alton & Eddie, he recorded the R&B-style scorcher “Muriel,” which became one of the first hit records for the pioneering local producer Clement Dodd, known as Coxsone.

Bouncing between Mr. Dodd’s Studio One label and the Treasure Isle label of a rival producer, Arthur Reid, known as Duke, Mr. Ellis blazed a trail with a series of classic love songs like “Girl I’ve Got A Date,” “I’m Just a Guy” and his signature, “Get Ready Rock Steady,” a 1966 dance-craze record that inspired a new era in Jamaican music. (Much later he established his own label, All-Tone.)

Rock steady was a sweeter, slower sound that formed the bridge between the hard-driving brass of ska and the rebel reggae that Marley later spread throughout the world. Rock steady’s easy pace and spare arrangements were the perfect showcase for Mr. Ellis’s soulful tenor, an elegant instrument that fell somewhere between the roughness of Otis Redding and the silkiness of Sam Cooke.

“Alton ruled the rock steady era,” Mr. Alcapone said. But Mr. Ellis’s influence did not stop there.

“Get Ready Rock Steady” was used in 1969 on “Wake the Town,” featuring a Rastafarian D.J. named U-Roy; the track would be described by some as the world’s earliest rap recording. The instrumental track to Mr. Ellis’s composition “Mad Mad” became one of the most covered recordings in reggae history, influencing generations of dancehall and hip-hop artists. And his 1967 composition “I’m Still in Love With You” was covered several times, most recently by the dancehall artists Sean Paul and Sasha, reaching No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Singles chart in 2004.

Mr. Ellis was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Distinction in 1994 and was inducted into the International Reggae and World Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

Ms. De Rosa said his body would lie in state in the National Arena in Jamaica to accommodate the crowds expected to pay their respects to Mr. Ellis, who never stopped working until he collapsed after a London performance in August. He had juggled demands to perform and record even as he underwent chemotherapy, making a final trip to Jamaica in June.

“My dad did a lot for music, but he didn’t really boast about it like he could have,” said his 23-year-old son Christopher, who often performed with his father and was one of his more than 20 children. “He’s got a lot of respect, and his name is really big, but financially he’s been robbed over the years. He told me, ‘Son, do not let them rob you like they robbed me.’ ”

After a long battle for royalties, Mr. Ellis received a check for “I’m Still in Love With You” a few weeks before he died, Ms. De Rosa said.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

U.S. Refuge for Pakistani Singer Fleeing the Taliban

October 13, 2008
U.S. Refuge for Singer Fleeing the Taliban

The threats started about a year ago, telling Haroon Bacha to stop singing or else.

“There were letters, there were phone calls, there were text messages,” Mr. Bacha said, sitting upright on a floor in Brooklyn, surrounded by smoke from Pakistani cigarettes. “They used to come very frequently back home, just telling me to stop music, or else I would be killed and my family would be. ...”

He trailed off, tears welling in his eyes. Mr. Bacha, 36, is a Pashtun, the Muslim ethnic group of the mountainous northwest of Pakistan and southeast Afghanistan, and at home he is a star, with dozens of albums, slick videos and regular television appearances. In a sweet high baritone, he sings of peace, tolerance and resistance to war. Those liberal themes have endeared him to his war-weary Pashtun fans, he says, but made him a target of the local Taliban, which has been waging an escalating campaign against music and popular culture, calling it un-Islamic.

Two months ago Mr. Bacha escaped from his home near Peshawar, in Pakistan, and came to New York, leaving behind his wife, two young children and an extended family. If he goes back, he said, he will be killed. With a sharply reduced audience in the United States, Mr. Bacha faces an uncertain career, but on Saturday he sang at a small but lively benefit concert in Queens, organized by the Pashtun immigrants who have adopted him and held at an unlikely place: the Forest Hills Jewish Center.

“Anybody who is hated by the Taliban is starting out with a check in my column,” said Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, the leader of the center, a Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Skolnik said that an initial phone call from one of the organizers had “raised a red flag,” but that after the groups were vetted to make sure none of the money raised would go to terrorist groups, he was happy to rent the space.

In the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, the Taliban has intimidated musicians and record store proprietors; recently dozens of music shops have been bombed, reportedly by pro-Taliban militants.

“Cultural activities are badly affected by what’s going on in the region,” said Hasan Khan, news director of the Islamabad-based television channel Khyber News, in a recent phone interview. “We have lost everything. We have lost music, we have lost local games, we have lost children playing in the street. It is almost impossible to visualize what is happening there.”

The soft-spoken Mr. Bacha, who has striking green eyes and short brown curls, is a slightly unusual figure as a Pashtun star; he has a university education and, unlike most Pashtun singers, he does not come from a family of musicians. He said he saw his role as helping to lead a broad cultural resistance to Islamic fundamentalism.

“These people are bringing Pashtuns a very bad name,” said Mr. Bacha, at one of the apartments in Brooklyn where he has been a guest. “The reason I didn’t succumb to these threats is that I should work for my people, for Pashto as a language and rich tradition. I need to promote it and show to the world that we are not like these people.”

Before the concert, held in the Jewish Center’s mirror-lined basement ballroom, Mr. Bacha led evening prayers, facing Mecca in the small lobby. And once the audience of 300 or so had taken its seats — the event was far from sold out — Mr. Bacha began performing, accompanied by two musicians and pumping a harmonium as he sang.

In the first songs of the night he declared his love for the Pashtuns’ land and traditional lifestyle: “Our mud houses are like palaces to us.” But soon his lyrics, which are drawn from old and new Pashto poetry, turned to topical struggles. “This is not my gun/This is not our war,” he sang, “They are bringing it to us.” The small crowd roared and clapped along, as men danced and threw money on the stage, in a sign of praise and approval.

“We are a peace-loving nation,” said Reyaz Nadi, 44, a Long Island architect originally from Kabul, the Afghan capital. “Unfortunately there’s always a war from the outside, going back to Alexander the Great. America is only the latest one.”

There is a historical precedent for the Taliban’s cultural clampdown. After taking power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, it banned public performances of most forms of music — some religious chants were permitted — and symbolically hanged musical instruments in effigy. Many musicians went into exile in Pakistan, but since the American invasion of Afghanistan and establishment of a new government there, most have returned, said John Baily, an ethnomusicologist and Afghanistan specialist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Professor Baily said it was not clear whether the same pattern was unfolding in Pakistan. “This is a very musical country with a huge range of different music,” he said. “It’s not that easy just to ban music. But they’re doing what they can.”

Mr. Bacha said he was not hopeful about his homeland’s future.

“If it continues like this, and these fanatics get power, our social fabric, our institutions — everything will be destroyed,” he said. “I don’t know what these elements want to have in their lives, what their world would be like.”

In the way of many musicians who come to New York who were accustomed to be big fish in smaller musical ponds, Mr. Bacha is adjusting to diminished prospects. Last week in New Jersey, for example, he played a wedding, something that his associates say he would never have done back home. On Saturday he will play at St. Michael’s Rectory in Bedford, Mass., and on Oct. 24 he will perform again in New York, at the Adria Hotel in Bayside, Queens.

“Wherever I find Pashtuns I can live as a singer,” Mr. Bacha said. “It could be America. It could be any part of the world.”

Kumbaya: How an innocent campfire song got warped by the cynicism of our times.

The Root
Oh, Lord, Kumbaya
How an innocent campfire song got warped by the cynicism of our times.
Updated: 2:31 PM ET Oct 10, 2008

Oct. 13, 2008--At this moment in history when we may need it most, "Kumbaya," a folk song that started its life as a quiet prayer and became a spiritual rallying cry for millions during some of this nation's grimmest days, has morphed into something that couldn't have been imagined during your Boy or Girl Scout days: a kind of metaphorical sneer at the service of politicians, pundits and the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti of the blogosphere (OK, me included).

Decades ago, the song "Kumbaya" (alternatively spelled "Kum Ba Yah") first became part of the national songbook as a call to peace. Since then, the message and meaning has been twisted into something altogether different. Derision of the song and its emotional foundation has become a required sign of toughness and pragmatism in American politics today, and this is especially true since the Sept. 11 attacks. That's a little sad, or a lot, depending on your point of view.

That journey from folk anthem to butt of jokes has been strange and singular, with murky origins. Some have said the song synonymous with s'mores around the campfire has origins as a Gullah spiritual (the title is said to mean "come by here" in the Gullah tongue). Some recordings of it were made in the 1920s; published versions appeared in the 1930s.

Wikipedia says the song, titled "Come By Here," first appeared in a collection by musicologist Robert Winslow Gordon in 1936, and in "Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey," a lyric sheet printed in Portland, Ore. in 1939. In 1946, the song returned from Africa with a family of American missionaries who toured the United States performing it.

After a long gestation, the song achieved prominence in the United States some time in the 1950s, its pacifist spirit dovetailing with the rise of the folk-music movement. It was recorded by Pete Seeger; the Folksmiths; the Weavers; the Seekers; Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez during the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a staple of the protest rallies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Oh, how things have changed. In November 2004, on the day that the William J. Clinton Presidential Library opened in Little Rock, Ark., Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly interviewed Geraldo Rivera. "It was a wonderful day, Bill, and I think we should put aside these issues of what was in, what was left out," Rivera said. "The fact of the matter is you had President Carter, first President Bush, the current president, all of the first ladies …"

Now did you sing 'Kumbaya'?" O'Reilly asked.

In the summer of 2004, Townhall columnist and radio talk show host Doug Giles made some comments about radical Islam. "They want us exterminated. … That said, what do we, Christians in particular, do when faced with an implacable radical enemy? Just sit around, sing 'Kum Ba Yah' and hope these bad guys will leave us alone?"

In 2006, condemning the impotence of the church preceding the rise of Nazism in pre-WWII Germany, Giles commented: "The German Church, which should have been a major player in defying Nazism, instead kum-ba-yah'd their way into Stupidville…"

In July of this year, in a condemnation Sen. of Barack Obama's courting of the evangelical right, Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council, another conservative evangelical group, told CNN that "talking about faith issues is not about singing 'Kumbaya' … It's about the public policies the person is going to put in place."

Even the current political beneficiary of the song's original spirit, Obama, has used it to his own devices. In October 2007, in a bid to clearly delineate differences between his own policies and those of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama said the idea that he and Clinton were "holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'" on political issues was wrong.

Maybe the corruption of "Kumbaya" is a sign of the rudeness at the root of the current political discourse, or it's just proof of what happens to something in the culture—anything in the culture—that's been around long enough.

Or maybe it's an indication that without the personal compass we lost on the trail years ago … we can't find that campfire anywhere.

Michael E. Ross is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at Culchavox; and is a periodic contributor to PopMatters. His writing has appeared in msnbc.com, The Loop, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Campaign Song: Respondele a Obama

Today is Daniel Pearl World Music Day

Daniel Pearl World Music Days are "an international network of concerts using the power of music to reaffirm our commitment to tolerance and humanity." The 7th Annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days take place during the entire month of October.

About Daniel Pearl World Music Days (from their website):

The seeds were planted....

On February 22, 2002, a day after the world learned that kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had been brutally murdered by his captors in Pakistan, conductor George Pehlivanian, Danny's neighbor and friend from Paris, was scheduled to lead the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra as a guest conductor. Deeply troubled by the news, he was initially reluctant to perform; instead, he decided to defy the evil by proudly dedicating the concert to Danny.

"As the orchestra played Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, I finally understood the triumph of hope over despair," said Pehlivanian. It was an emotional and exultant concert, ending with 15 minutes of sustained applause.

After Danny's funeral in August 2002, in the spirit of his love for music, his family decided to inspire hope and unity by inviting people everywhere to dedicate a musical event on the day he would have turned 39 years old - October 10, 2002. Thus, the seeds were planted for Daniel Pearl World Music Days, now two weeks of worldwide "Harmony for Humanity" concerts- reminding the world of the principles by which Danny lived, the universal power of music, and our shared humanity.

Visit their website HERE

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why Should Rock Stars Expect To Be Rich?

The Word UK

Why Should Rock Stars Expect To Be Rich?
Posted by The Word on 11 September 2008 - 3:33pm.

Tom Whitwell argues that the rock stars of the future will earn about as much as the average bank manager.

I grew up assuming that anyone on tv was mind-bogglingly rich. It's a common enough mistake that I share with the cast of Big Brother. Sometimes, it's true. Some pop stars are very, very rich. Jay-Z's various businesses have earned him $1bn. Former Beatles are on £500 million each. The members of Coldplay are worth £30m each. Even Craig David is sitting on £10m.

oasis_0.jpgI don't think it's going to last. Why should a musician who sells one million albums a year be paid so much more than the editor of a national newspaper that sells one billion copies a year? In ten years' time, maybe five, being a pop star will be a profitable profession. Like being a barrister or a consultant. But not like being a juice carton magnate.

This isn't a moral or cultural opinion. Gary Glitter can earn £50,000 a year on royalties accrued every time Rock & Roll (Part 2) is played at an NFL game. So what? All that tells us is that he was lucky enough to be part of the never-to-be-repeated phenomenon that was The Music Industry of the Latter Years of the 20th Century.

And it was an extraordinary edifice. Instead of paying for advertising, the music biz had an entire industry - radio - paying them to promote their products. Not good enough? Along came MTV, a channel devoted to airing glossy advertisments for their output. Why build expensive shops when HMV and Tower Records will do it for you? Why buy advertising when you've got the front pages of NME, Rolling Stone and all the rest of them?

Not surprisingly, times were good. Vinyl records were cheap to manufacture but hard to copy. Recording studios were vastly expensive to hire, so musicians were dependent on the industry to get records made. Most of all, as internet marketeer Seth Godin reminded executives at Columbia Records last year, people didn't like pop stars, they loved them. It seemed natural that pop stars should be rich. And they were.

Now, all that is gone, washed away by the digital tide. The great, profit-hyping discovery that was the CD - we can get everyone to buy their record collection all over again, for twice the price! - proved in the long run to be the industry's nemesis. Too late, the labels realised that in fact they had been flogging infinitely duplicable digital masters to the public. And nobody ever got rich selling something expensive that you can get for free.

The music business will change. People love music more than ever. Turning that love into money isn't simple but it's possible. Internet clever person Kevin Kelly has written a great essay called 1,000 True Fans. He sets out how a musician (or writer, or artist) should be able to make a comfortable living (say $100,000 a year) if they can offer sufficiently enticing products to a sufficient number of true fans. His maths are fuzzy but his basic argument is sound. It's no longer enough to have two million people like your song, buy the single and earn you a house. They'll just download it, and you won't see a penny. Instead, you need a deeper relationship with fewer people.

The customer service offered by record labels is remedial. I've bought plenty of Grace Jones records with money. I'd happily pay more money to see her play a concert. Did anyone from her label email me to say she was playing in London on a Thursday night when I was at home watching Bonekickers? No. They took my money and didn't even get my name. They expect Amazon or iTunes to manage my likes and dislikes, when they're the people who stand to profit.

Seth Godin sees a future where the record labels become "tribe management". They'll look after the fans, offering them special products, facilitating communities and spotting synergies. Instead of sending me spam about some new band, they'll send me a free track and invite me to an exclusive and very expensive gig.

What will it look like from the rock star's end of the telescope? In fairness, most working musicians in rock and roll's Premiership, if not its Big Four, have accepted that the days of driving Rolls-Royces into private pools are long gone. In the 1970s, Elton, Led Zep and the Stones set the standard of rock star ostentation that is now of use only to filmmakers and potboiler novelists. Today's famous musicians work harder and are paid less, and in the future it'll only get worse. A rock star used to be a demigod who bathed in money each morning. In the future, they'll look with envy on Java programmers or hedge fund managers.

Falafel Wars (Lebanon: Israel stole our falafel)


Country's Industrialists Association says Jewish state trying to claim ownership of traditional Lebanese delicacies like tabouleh and hummus, plans international food-related suit
Roee Nahmias

Lebanon is planning on filing an international law suit against Israel for violating a food copyright, Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists Association, told the al-Arabiya network.

The Lebanese claim is that Israel markets original Lebanese food like tabouleh, kubbeh, hummus, falafel and fattoush which the Lebanese considered their trademarks prior to the establishment of the Jewish state.

Abboud explained that the fact that Israel has been marketing Lebanese delicacies under the same names and ingredients around the world has caused great losses to Lebanon, and that while, “the full extent is unknown, it is estimated at tens of millions of dollars annually.”

Abboud, who prepared a memo on the subject, based his case on the, ”feta cheese precedent” that occurred six years ago.

At that time, France, Denmark and Germany asserted that Greece cannot have a monopoly over the production of this type of cheese. Greece managed to prove in international institutions that it is the cheese’s “originator” and won the case.

Until that point, the three prosecuting countries produced 12,000 tons of cheese a year.

The court ruled that from then on, other countries could not use the name “feta”, as this cheese is “largely associated with Greece’s history and has been produced under this name for 6,000 years.”

Thus, the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs decided to grant Greece the sole right to produce and market the cheese under that name.

The Lebanese official claims that not only does Israel use the names of Lebanese foods but it also markets them in ready-to-eat plastic boxes for European and US consumers as if these were traditional Israeli foods.

According to Abboud, while Lebanon never registered the names and ingredients of these delicacies, “it can refer to the Greece precedent since these foods are historically known as traditional Lebanese foods.”

He also said that the Lebanese Industrialists Association is working on registering all the foods and ingredients and submitting a report to the Lebanese government since only it can appeal to the international courts against Israel and “prevent it from stealing the foods that others produce."

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Porning of America and What's at Stake for Youth


The Pornification Of A Generation

A new book traces the migration of porn culture from adult theaters to the mainstream—and asks what that means for kids.
Jessica Bennett

The idea for a book about porn culture came to Kevin Scott the day his daughter decided she absolutely had to have a Bratz-doll pony. For months, the 5-year-old had begged him for a Bratz doll—clad in spike heels, fishnets and miniskirt, enormous puppy-dog eyes protruding from her oversized head. Her sexy look seemed a little too sexy for a preschooler, so he and his wife bought her a different doll, which she was happy with. Except that a few months later, Bratz came out with Bratz Babyz. "If Bratz had looked like Barbie hookers, these looked like baby hookers," Scott says. Again, he convinced his daughter that My Little Pony was just as cool—and for a moment, the conversation ended. Until, of course, the Bratz came out with Bratz Ponyz. And then, says Scott, an English professor at a small college in Georgia, "I realized porn culture and I were in a death match for my daughter's soul."

In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn't take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms. According to a 2007 study from the University of Alberta, as many as 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls aged 13 to 14 have accessed sexually explicit content at least once.

But it isn't just sex that Scott is worried about. He's more interested in how we, as a culture, often mimic the most raunchy, degrading parts of it—many of which, he says, come directly from pornography. In "The Porning of America" (Beacon), which he has written with colleague Carmine Sarracino, a professor of American literature, the duo argue that, through Bratz dolls and beyond, the influence of porn on mainstream culture is affecting our self perceptions and behavior—in everything from fashion to body image to how we conceptualize our sexuality.

read the rest of the story HERE

Ruedi Rymann, Swiss Yodeling Star, Dies at 75


October 7, 2008
Ruedi Rymann, Swiss Yodeling Star, Dies at 75

Ruedi Rymann, a Swiss farmer and cheesemaker renowned in his home country as a yodeler and the man who recorded what came to be known as “Switzerland’s greatest hit,” died on Sept. 10 at his home in Giswil, south of Zurich. He was 75.

His family told the Swiss newspaper Blick he had been suffering from liver cancer and decided in June to end chemotherapy treatments. He is survived by his wife and six children.

To the Swiss, Mr. Rymann was something of a cultural representative, the embodiment of a kind of Swissness that was steeped in tradition. A forester, a hunter and generally an outdoorsman, he was an athlete as well, running a local club devoted to the uniquely Swiss style of wrestling known as swingen, in which the combatants strive to toss each other beyond the bounds of a circular bed of sawdust. And though yodeling — a type of singing in which a falsetto, or head voice, alternates with a deeper, natural chest voice — is native to a number of countries and migrated to a number of others, including the United States, it is most closely associated with Switzerland, where one theory has it that it developed as a method of alpine communication, to be heard from mountaintop to mountaintop. The Swiss Yodeling Association, founded in 1910, attracts over 200,000 visitors to its National Yodeling Festival every three years.

Mr. Rymann was a master yodeler in the Swiss style which, according to the book “Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo,” a remarkably comprehensive tour of the yodeling universe by Bart Plantenga (Routledge, 2004), does not make use of the “eee” sound.

“And, to the surprise of most neophytes, it has a decided melancholy feeling — slow, mournful, forlorn,” Mr. Plantenga wrote.

Mr. Rymann, whose natural voice was a bell-like tenor, made numerous recordings, singing alone or with other yodelers — sometimes even yodel choruses — and often accompanied by a jaunty accordion or two. His recording of a traditional folk song, “Dr Schacher Seppli,” became a fixture on Swiss request radio.

The song is a melodic lament by a poor wanderer, the title character, whose name roughly translates as Joe Schacher, about the unfairness of life and the rewards awaiting him in heaven. The lyrics go, in part:

The world is a turbulent place.

I’ve observed it many times:

People hurt each other just because of that damned money.

How beautiful it could be down here.

The bird on the tree sings,

“Look at your land, isn’t Switzerland a dream?”

The song was so popular that in 2007, when a Swiss television series devoted to popular national music polled its viewers, they voted Mr. Rymann’s “Dr Schacher Seppli” the greatest Swiss hit of all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Recordings Aim to Capture Calls of the Wild West

University of Utah researcher Jeff Rice records the rattling sound of a Great Basin rattlesnake Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, in Salt Lake City to add to his collection. The landscape recordings could also provide important audio snapshots that could be used for comparison later when trying to understand how animals respond to encroaching subdivisions, oil and gas development, a warming climate or other changes.
(AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

Recordings aim to capture calls of the wild West

By MIKE STARK, Associated Press WriterSun Oct 5, 7:51 PM ET

Rattlesnakes aren't to be trifled with, but if you're trying to collect the sound of every creature in the West that slithers, hops, flies or flops, distance isn't a luxury you can afford.

"You get yourself in some strange situations," said Jeff Rice, a soft-spoken University of Utah research librarian who's trying to create the first comprehensive — and free to the public — archive of natural sounds in the West.

Minutes later he was squatting in the hills above Salt Lake City, training his lightweight parabolic microphone toward a Great Basin rattlesnake a few feet away.

The snake, caught by wildlife agents that day in a backyard, offered a few doubtful quiet moments. Finally, though, it let loose a long dry rattle, both eerie and fascinating, that unmistakably said "keep away."

"I knew he'd come through," Rice said, grinning like he'd been given a Christmas present.

The recording, reduced to a short clip, will be added to the Western Soundscape Archive, a Web-based sound clearinghouse headquartered at the university library.

Although it's just a year old, the site already has more than 800 recordings. The goal is to catalog the nearly 1,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that roam 11 Western states. It will also feature "ambient soundscapes" from wild places across the region.

The sounds will be available to teachers, scientists and anyone else interested in hearing the odd murmurings of a sage grouse, javelina, Columbia spotted frog or mountain-dwelling moose.

The landscape recordings could also provide an important audio snapshot that could be used for comparison later when trying to understand how animals respond to encroaching subdivisions, oil and gas development, a warming climate, or other changes.

Repeat photography can reveal changes in a limited area, but repeated recordings offer broader insights, said Kurt Fristrup, a scientist with the National Park Service's natural sounds office in Fort Collins, Colo.

Many of the sound clips on the archive have been donated. Some, Rice had to get himself.

He has hunkered down in Utah's remote San Rafael Swell to record the chatter of beavers; logged hours on the Nevada side of Lake Mead listening to relict leopard frogs; and visited a laboratory to tape the Northern grasshopper mouse, a pint-size rodent that perches on its hind legs to offer a shrill whistle of warning.

"It's like a squeaky door," Rice said.

In the field, animals tend to be most active in early morning and evening. Rice comes prepared with hand-held digital recording equipment and a sense of adventure.

"You leave at 2 a.m. and find yourself wandering around bleary-eyed in a swamp," he said. "Sometimes you wonder what you're doing."

The work has its own quirky challenges — he's learned not to wear clothes that ripple noisily in the wind — and an urgent, serious side too.

As natural places disappear, so do the animal sounds that decorate them.

The World Conservation Union estimates that one in three amphibian species is at risk for extinction. Rice, 41, wants to capture as many on tape as possible before they're gone.

"It's very much a race against time," he said.

He figures the library has recordings of about 75 percent of the 53 frog and toad species in the states involved — Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. It has about 70 percent of the birds and dozens of mammal and reptile recordings.

The recordings, even heard from the safety of a desktop, can stir something primal in the DNA, a sudden flight response, for instance, in the case of the rattlesnake.

"Responses to those kinds of sounds are almost reflexive," Fristrup said.

He said Rice's archive could help people learn what animals they're hearing in the wild, even if they can't see them.

"Most of us learn to ignore what our ears tell us and focus on the task at hand because we live in really noisy habitat," Fristrup said. "But in some ways, hearing is the most alerting sense, directing us to things that matter."

There are already several natural sound archives available on the Web, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., which says it has the largest sound and video archive of animal behavior.

The West, though, has never been fully represented, Rice said.

"I think we have a tendency to take for granted what we have in our own backyard," he said.


On the Net:

Click HERE for the Western Soundscape Archive: http://www.westernsoundscape.org/

Caleb Burhans: A Man of Many Talents, Eager to Use Them All


October 5, 2008
A Man of Many Talents, Eager to Use Them All

EARLY this summer Caleb Burhans cleared his performance calendar for the first time since 2001, when he graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and moved to New York City. He wasn’t taking a vacation, exactly. Lincoln Center and Alarm Will Sound, a new-music orchestra in which he plays violin, had commissioned him to write a work to be performed in March as part of the reopening festivities at Alice Tully Hall, and Mr. Burhans resolved to do nothing but compose.

Well, sort of. He set aside his weekly bread-and-butter job, singing as a countertenor in the Trinity Choir on Sunday mornings, and turned down pickup orchestra gigs.

But at the Bang on a Can Marathon in June, he played his “No,” for violin and electronics, and performed with Alarm Will Sound and another new-music group, Signal. He also performed with Signal at the Ojai Music Festival in California. And in a three-day stretch in August, in New York, he sang with two chamber choirs (also conducting one of them), played and sang in a pop theater piece and gave a concert with itsnotyouitsme, his ambient rock duo.

And when his Sept. 1 deadline arrived, the industrious Mr. Burhans not only had completed his work for Lincoln Center, “oh ye of little faith ... (do you know where your children are?),” but had started two more pieces as well.

At 28, Mr. Burhans has pursued a career path so logical that it seems almost foolproof. Just sing, compose and master several instruments (besides the violin he plays viola, guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion) and the New York freelance world is your oyster. But this is a new development. Until recently, the conventional wisdom went, musicians with diverse talents should specialize: decide whether they are better suited to composing or performing, singing or playing an instrument, working in classical music or a variety of pop.

And while most young musicians still make the traditional choices and scramble to find work in freelance ensembles until they have established themselves as recitalists or chamber players, others are seeking to diversify. Mr. Burhans’s generation is the third to come of age during the rock era, and where conservatories once taught only classical music, most now offer courses and even degrees in jazz and rock, recording technology and the music industry itself. And musicians who grew up hearing everything from Mozart and Ligeti to Wilco and Radiohead are less inclined than their elders to compartmentalize their passions.

“I was always told, when I was a kid, that you have to decide at some point what it is you want to do,” Mr. Burhans said one afternoon early in his composing break. “And I thought, that’s cool. I’m going to school and study violin, viola and composition, and I’m playing in jazz and rock bands, and when I move to New York, that will decide it for me. People will see what I’m best at, and that’s what I’m going to do.

“But when I got here, I actually did the opposite. I kept doing them all, and I love it. The variety keeps me on my toes, creatively.”

A film about Mr. Burhans would be a cross between “Zelig” and “Amadeus.” In New York’s trendy new-music world, he is everywhere, working with just about everybody as both performer and composer. His name stands out on a roster, and if you’ve heard him as a violinist, guitarist, bassist or mandolinist in a new-music group, it can be puzzling to find him listed among the choristers at Trinity Church or as a member of the disco band Escort or the techno ensemble Bleknlok.

But there’s no mistaking him. He’s the one with the short, sometimes spiky hair, retro eyeglasses, black nail polish and earring.

As new as Mr. Burhans’s career approach is, he is hardly an anomaly. Seven other musicians in Alarm Will Sound also compose. Several have rock bands as well. And the number of musicians with fingers in both classical and pop seems to be growing.

Lev Zhurbin, a young violist and composer who works under the name Ljova, has largely given up his chamber ensemble jobs now that his composing career has taken off. He performs most often with his genre-crossing ensembles, the Kontraband and Romashka, both of which draw on classical pop and world music.

Christina Courtin, a Juilliard-trained violinist, plays in orchestras but is also a pop singer-songwriter with her own band and an album coming from Nonesuch. And Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that sometimes accompanies Ms. Courtin — and that, like Ms. Courtin, plays in the Knights, a chamber orchestra — performs a repertory that tilts toward new music, sometimes with multicultural strands.

“Playing different kinds of music is something young musicians increasingly have to do,” said Justin Kantor, a 29-year-old cellist and the proprietor of Le Poisson Rouge, a new Greenwich Village club that offers both pop and classical performances. “And besides, it’s fun.”

Role models are few for musical switch-hitters. Leonard Bernstein, who balanced conducting, composing, piano playing and multimedia lecturing, is one. So are Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who early in their careers revived the 19th-century notion of the touring composer-performer, leading their own ensembles in programs devoted to their works when there was no other way to get them played.

“My goal (when I was 14) was to move to NYC and play/sing for Philip,” Mr. Burhans wrote in an e-mail message. “That didn’t really work out (I work with Steve Reich instead, which is cool by me ...) but I’ve always held up Philip and Steve as models of the do-it-yourself way of approaching music.”

But in an interview a few weeks later, he noted a significant difference between himself and those composers.

“It’s different for me because I thrive on doing other people’s music as well as my own. And if I didn’t have those outlets, I don’t know what my music would be like. I’m so influenced by other things around me. It’s nice to know I’m singing in a church service in the morning, and I’m playing with a rock band at night.”

The catholicity of Mr. Burhans’s listening habits is something he has in common with an increasing number of musicians of his generation. Classical musicians who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s may have listened to rock and played jazz in their off hours, but those influences didn’t inform their performing lives. One reason was that “crossover” projects, which sought to link pop and classical music, were regarded as both unhip and inept by listeners on both sides. The doorways between the repertories were few.

But by the time Mr. Burhans came of age, he noticed even at a considerable distance from New York that the downtown Manhattan indie rock scene had links to avant-garde artists and composers. And from his point of view, as both a listener and a player, the boundaries between avant-garde rock and avant-garde classical seemed invitingly porous.

The varied musical life that Mr. Burhans leads is evident to anyone visiting his studio, a sunny, instrument-filled room in his Washington Heights apartment. A book of Mr. Glass’s piano works sits on an electric piano along one wall. And on music stands to either side of a selection of guitars, violins (Baroque, modern and electric), a mandolin and two violas (also Baroque and modern), Mr. Burhans has a book of Bach sonatas, Mr. Reich’s “Violin Phase” and works by Biber, Paganini, Ysaÿe, Xenakis and John Adams, as well as a couple of his own pieces.

On the floor toward the center of the room, Mr. Burhans has a Casio sampler and a collection of electronic pedals, which he uses to make loops: recordings of musical passages that repeat continually. In some of his music, shifting loop sequences form a backdrop against which melodies unfold.

Sitting at his computer, Mr. Burhans played a handful of his loops, some of which he uses as they are, in spacey, meditative (or at times, rambunctious) electronic works; others are radically transformed. A plaintive, minor-key violin and bass loop was the basis of a haunting choral setting, “Nunc Dimittis” (2004), written for a church in Rochester and also performed at Trinity; the new piece for Alarm Will Sound and Alice Tully Hall is partly based on a loop as well.

Playing several instruments and being drawn to most musical styles is in Mr. Burhans’s DNA. His father, Ron Burhans, was a guitarist and bassist who toured as a sideman with Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers and Kenny Rogers. After he gave up touring, he worked as a one-man party band, with a repertory of about 3,000 songs and a setup that included MIDI guitars, bass pedals, a drum machine and a vocal harmonizer. (He died when Caleb was 17.)

“I’ve tried to figure out how Caleb ended up the way he did,” his mother, Venus Burhans, said. “I would say part of it was modeling from his father, who as a musician did not try to peg himself as just rock ’n’ roll. He was ready with all the country songs, the classics or whatever was out there, basically so that he could work and put food on the table. We could see that the more versatile you were, the more marketable you were. So Caleb was always around music. His dad had all his equipment set up in the middle of the living room, and whenever he was away from it, Caleb would run up to the microphone and sing into it.”

Mr. Burhans also got a sense of a musician’s itinerant lifestyle early on. He was born in Monterey, Calif., in 1980, and lived briefly in Chiloquin, Ore., before moving to Houston and then to Janesville, Wis. He began his musical studies in Houston, when his second-grade music teacher persuaded him to join the Spring Branch Boys Choir; soon after, he was drafted into a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” as Buttercup and discovered that he liked the attention.

He was also — haltingly at first — becoming interested in instruments. He turned down his father’s offer of guitar lessons and gave up the flute after a week before becoming fascinated with the violin. His parents resisted his pleas for a violin at first, but when the family moved to Wisconsin and Mr. Burhans was still clamoring for a fiddle, they gave in.

“I didn’t listen to any classical music until I started playing the violin,” Mr. Burhans said. “I discovered Mozart and the Beatles in the same year, when I was 9. I came one day and said, ‘Could you guys get me a Mozart tape?’ And my parents weren’t sure why, but they got me one. I was listening to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, and then Philip Glass. Before Stravinsky or Bartok. It made sense, because I grew up with 1980s rock, which is very compressed, and then there was Mozart, with those Alberti basses that are almost like the arpeggio sound in Glass, so when I first heard Philip’s music, it made total sense. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I began listening to Ligeti, Xenakis, Ravi Shakar and Aphex Twin. And I was, like, ‘Wow, this is all great.’ ”

Having discovered his diverse group of musical favorites, Mr. Burhans continued to sing in choirs and joined two professional local orchestras when he was 13. He also played and sang in punk and jazz bands. He studied piano for a while, getting as far as the Beethoven concertos before deciding to give it up to spend more time composing. When he made that decision, he also asked his parents to remove the television and Nintendo game from his bedroom so that he wouldn’t be distracted by them.

Summers, he attended music camps, including Interlochen in Michigan, where he also spent a year preparing for conservatory auditions. Among the musicians he came to know there was his future wife, Martha Cluver, then a violinist and violist, now a soprano who often works with Mr. Reich, John Zorn and other composers.

“We’ve known each other since we were 11,” said Ms. Cluver, who grew up in Fort Atkinson, Wis., 30 minutes from Janesville. “We had the same violin teacher. Even before I ‘liked’ him, I thought he was this genius.”

Ms. Cluver and Mr. Burhans both completed their music degrees at the Eastman School, where they became involved with Ossia, a new-music orchestra from which a group of graduating students — including Mr. Burhans and Alan Pierson, the conductor — formed Alarm Will Sound in 2001.

“I encountered Caleb when he was a freshman,” Mr. Pierson said, “but I had heard about him before I met him. A friend of mine who had been at Interlochen mentioned that there was a phenomenal violinist coming to Eastman. When we were planning an all-Ligeti program in 1998, we were looking for a violinist. One of my friends, walking across the campus, ran into this kid looking at the score for the Ligeti Piano Concerto and thought, that has to be Caleb. We auditioned him, and he quickly became an important part of the new-music scene.”

Mr. Burhans took a job as a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic, which was sometimes rocky. Once, when Mr. Burhans turned up at a rehearsal with his hair dyed purple, the orchestra’s managing director asked him to do something about it before the concert. Mr. Burhans turned up in a witch’s wig, cut short. The next week he tried to dye his hair a conventional red, but because of the purple die, it came out crimson, so he shaved his head.

“I found out that one of the trumpet players was going around saying that I was making a mockery of classical music because my hair was purple,” Mr. Burhans said. “And I had a really intense conversation with the managing director, where I said: ‘You know, I’m just trying to help classical music, because if we don’t get more people like me coming to these concerts, this orchestra is going to die. The only people who are coming are old people, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.’

“But I made a sign that said, ‘I Make a Mockery of Classical Music’ and started wearing it around.”

Mr. Burhans had decided by then that one of the brass rings of a traditional classical music career — a seat in a major symphony orchestra — was not for him. That was a big decision: jobs at the top orchestras are scarce, but the base pay at several now tops $100,000. (At smaller orchestras around the country, the schedules are sparser and salaries can be around $25,000. Some musicians cobble together a living by splitting their services among several orchestras in adjoining states, which means driving hundreds of miles between jobs.) Playing in freelance ensembles and chamber groups, to say nothing of composing, though more attractive to musicians of Mr. Burhans’s interests, is more financially precarious.

When Mr. Burhans and Ms. Cluver graduated from Eastman, they considered moving to Boston but opted for New York. The decision was made carefully, with the advice of friends who were pursuing careers. New York remains the most vibrant center of classical music performance in the United States, and it offers the most freelance opportunities.

Even so, it’s hard for a conservatory graduate to hit the ground running, and Mr. Burhans and Ms. Cluver lived on credit cards at first before landing choral jobs at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan. The jobs remain the basis of Mr. Burhans and Ms. Cluver’s household economy, although they now both pursue a crowded schedule of freelance jobs as well.

But lately Mr. Burhans has been wondering whether the cacophonous variety of his career is a double-edged sword.

“I know Caleb is confused about this sometimes,” Ms. Cluver said. “He thinks about focusing more on composing or on his band itsnotyouitsme. But then all these other opportunities come up, and he gets really excited about them. He’s just so talented, it’s hard for him to pick and choose. With me, I’m just focusing on singing, and he’s told me, ‘I’m jealous of you, because you know what you’re doing.’ But I don’t. He’s the one who knows what he’s doing. And most of the time, he’s happy staying busy.”

His success has not dulled his wry, sometimes self-deprecating humor. “When I was in school,” he said, “my grandmother asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, ‘I’m going to move to New York and freelance.’ She said: ‘What do you mean? Don’t you want to be in an orchestra?’ So I said, ‘No, I want to live from paycheck to paycheck and not have health insurance.’ She was terrified: ‘Oh, my God!’ And here I am, living paycheck to paycheck and not having health insurance. I’m fulfilling my dream.”

NPR: Strange Musical Instruments

NPR has a story about listeners' unusually musical instruments HERE.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Capella Group Straight No Chaser


October 5, 2008
A Cappella Dreaming: 10 Voices, One Shot

TEN years ago, the founding members of Straight No Chaser — an undergraduate a cappella group from Indiana University — performed at Carnegie Hall. They sang the national anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. They took road trips, ensnared female fans and created a lasting tradition on campus. And then they graduated.

Save for the odd wedding or college reunion, these men had not sung together with any regularity since. Until 2008, when Craig Kallman, the chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records, offered the 10-man group a five-album record deal.

This may be the year’s most unlikely major-label story.

David Roberts, 31, a project manager for a Midtown bank, was sitting in his cubicle in January when he got the call. Michael Itkoff, also 31, a sales rep for a medical-device company, was at home in Atlanta. Jerome Collins, 32, was in Hong Kong starring as Simba in a theme-park production of “The Lion King.”

“We thought it was a joke,” Mr. Itkoff said. “But Atlantic flew us to New York and put us up at the Dream hotel. There was a fruit plate in my hotel room. They were talking about a tour with Josh Groban or Michael Bublé. I thought, Are you kidding me?”

Mr. Kallman — like nearly eight million others — discovered Straight No Chaser on YouTube in December, through a 1998 video of the group performing an unlikely riff on “The 12 Days of Christmas” (a riff that incorporated snippets of everything from “I Have a Little Dreidel” to Toto’s “Africa”). Randy Stine, an original member, had uploaded the clip strictly for the group’s own amusement, but it quickly went viral.

“We thought the attention would die down after the New Year,” said the group’s founder, Dan Ponce, 31, now a reporter for ABC News in Chicago.

But Mr. Kallman smelled a potential holiday crossover hit in the vein of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a metal band famous for playing Christmas music in large, sold-out arenas. That band has sold more than five million albums, and last year it played a 90-city tour that grossed more than $45 million.

“We’re at a time when we’re entertained by air-guitar video games and reality competitions about hairstyling, dressmaking and grocery bagging,” Mr. Kallman said in a telephone interview. “Straight No Chaser was this organic YouTube sensation. The idea is to develop an act with real resonance for the holiday season and build a brand in the a cappella arena.”

Major labels have flirted with a cappella groups before. R&B acts like the Persuasions had been signed to the majors in the 1970s before moving to smaller labels in recent years. In 2005, Tonic Sol-fa, an a cappella quartet out of Minneapolis, was briefly signed to Vivaton Records (a division of Sony), but the label folded a week before the group’s album hit shelves. At the height of the 1990s boy-band boom, an a cappella group called 4:2:Five (featuring a young Scott Porter of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”) met with Sony, but when the executives suggested adding backing tracks and choreography, the members walked.

That kind of tinkering is perhaps understandable. While there are more than 1,200 collegiate a cappella groups in the United States, according to estimates from the Contemporary a Cappella Society of America, mainstream attitudes toward the genre are not kind. A cappella is regularly mocked on screen, notably on the NBC comedy “The Office” and recently in the Will Ferrell film “Step Brothers.” Still, Mr. Kallman was not deterred. He did not want to hide that these men were an a cappella group. Rather, he hoped to embrace it.

“Group harmony is in the air,” he said. “ ‘Jersey Boys’ is a worldwide phenomenon. The ‘Mamma Mia!’ soundtrack is Number 1.” With Straight No Chaser, Atlantic is aiming for the mass audience that made Mr. Groban’s “Noël” the top-selling album of 2007.

Perhaps the idea of a major-label a cappella Christmas hit isn’t so far-fetched. “Once in a while a fresh Christmas album breaks through and has a chance of becoming a perennial seller,” said Jay Landers, senior vice president of A&R at Columbia Records, an Atlantic competitor. “Josh Groban and Mannheim Steamroller will continue to sell for years. A cappella might be considered a niche signing, but if the repertoire is fresh and accessible, then it could work.”

And so a Straight No Chaser album, “Holiday Spirits,” is due out Oct. 28 on Atlantic’s Atco imprint. The album is a collection of 12 Christmas classics (and two original holiday tunes), including a live version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” (Richard Gregory, 76, now a retired music teacher in Massachusetts, wrote the original comic arrangement of the traditional carol while serving in the Navy in the 1950s. It became a staple of the Princeton Nassoons, and Straight No Chaser added its own funny flavor.)

There may even be a reality show on the horizon. Mark Burnett of the “Survivor” franchise, Jesse Ignjatovic, the executive producer of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, and Atlantic are shopping a competition show featuring Straight No Chaser that is tentatively titled “A Cappella Nation.”

“Look at what’s working in the reality space — family-friendly entertainment,” Mr. Burnett said. “There’s no way this is not a big hit. It’s great music. It’s fun for the whole family.”

The Straight No Chaser “12 Days of Christmas” video had a certain kitsch appeal, what with 10 men harmonizing to “I Have a Little Dreidel.” But the eight million people who clicked on it were also likely responding to the genuine, unironic enjoyment plastered across the members’ faces; the video begged to be forwarded.

But the trick was capturing that energy on disc. Straight No Chaser — the name was inspired by the Thelonious Monk composition — began album rehearsals in March, and the first day was surreal. “It was like we were right back in the senior year of college, and we were going over music for a show at a sorority house,” Mr. Itkoff said. “It was like no time had passed.”

Except time had passed — nearly a decade. Mr. Itkoff, the medical-device salesman, was married now and had to convince his wife that frequent trips to New York (and whatever might come next) would not upend their life in Atlanta. They’d recently had a baby, and his wife had stopped working. “Her biggest worry was that I’d leave her for months at a time, with no income and a child.”

For a similar reason, one original member, Patrick Hachey — a high school music teacher in New Jersey with three kids and a wife — declined to join the reunion. (Another original member, who had fallen out with others in the group, was not asked to join, and the slots were filled with two younger alumni. The group has had several lineups at Indiana University.)

Most of the album was recorded over two weeks in July in Bloomington, Ind. Steve Lunt of Atlantic, an industry A&R veteran who has worked with Britney Spears and ’N Sync, was brought on to produce.

Though they were recording for a major label, the budget was conservative. Not counting travel and other expenses, they spent roughly $20,000 on recording.

Mr. Lunt flew to Bloomington twice to put his stamp on the project. “Collegiate a cappella is intentionally goofy and tongue-in-cheek and ironic,” he said. “But there’s a thin line between goofy and stupid, and goofy and funny.”

The members of Straight No Chaser understand Mr. Lunt’s concern, and they are in on the joke — to a point. “It’s great to see a cappella lampooned on shows like ‘30 Rock,’ ” Mr. Stine said. “We laugh at a cappella along with everyone else. Clearly it doesn’t have the coolest reputation. Maybe we can change that.”

Still, Mr. Lunt refers to the finished project as “Beach Boyz II Men,” a comment that highlights the inherent marketing challenge. “This is a 10-piece, slightly overgrown college vocal band,” he said. “We’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle. We’re swimming upstream. There are a lot of mixed metaphors here. But the genuine enthusiasm you feel from these guys is infectious.”

Despite the excitement of a major-label deal, most of the group members have kept quiet about it until now. “We had to protect our jobs,” Mr. Itkoff said. “We’re not 19 anymore. But it was like leading a double life.”

With the album’s release approaching, it is hard for the members not to daydream. To that end, Mr. Stine recently quit his day job, in part because he couldn’t get two weeks off to record the album but also because he hopes the project will have legs. Mr. Roberts, the Manhattan finance guy, is more conservative. “The economics in the group are tough,” he said. “There are 10 mouths to feed here, and any money will be split 10 ways.”

Mr. Kallman of Atlantic described the project as “low risk.” He signed Straight No Chaser to what is called a 360-degree deal, meaning Atlantic will share in potential revenue from merchandise, concert tours, even ring tones. The group was given a very small advance (basically just enough money to cover recording costs), and it will take a “standard cut of net sales,” according to Mr. Ponce. “We’re happy with the deal.”

There’s a distinct possibility, all involved agree, that this excitement could disappear as suddenly as it arrived. “We’re talking about a cappella,” Mr. Roberts said. “Let’s be honest.”

But if the scene in Bloomington is any indication, perhaps there is hope for an a cappella Christmas hit. On one of the last nights of recording, the boys were out celebrating, playing a drinking game called Sink the Bismarck at an old haunt. There was a bachelorette party a few tables over. A member of Straight No Chaser was making small talk when one of the women — an Indiana University alumnus — interrupted him.

“Are you the original members of Straight No Chaser?” she asked. And then she screamed.